Featured in the May 2024 issue of The Rowling Library Magazine.

The Unmasking of a Master Forger

2436 words.
By Jan Maliepaard.

A remarkable story of the most expert forger of J.K. Rowling’s signature and how he was unmasked.

The Unmasking of a Master Forger - The Rowling Library
The Unmasking of a Master Forger – The Rowling Library

Soon after launching “Winters Rare Books” at the end of 2022—a bookstore specializing in rare and signed Harry Potter books—I was approached by an American collector interested in acquiring a complete set of signed copies. We swiftly agreed on the price, but the customer sought a second opinion regarding the authenticity of the signatures. I had complete confidence in my collection, so I welcomed the request. Although I wasn’t an expert on J.K. Rowling’s signature, I had thoroughly researched its evolution over the years. Additionally, the copies I had acquired were accompanied by tickets from signing events or letters from bookstores and J.K. Rowling’s office. Notably, they also bore the hologram stickers introduced by Rowling in 2007. When purchasing items on eBay, I ensured that I dealt with reputable sellers who had positive feedback. It appeared that I had done my due diligence well.

For the second opinion, the customer expressed interest in contacting a reputable authentication company in the USA. However, I had recently read an interview in The Rowling Magazine with British collector Adam Houston, who highlighted that authentication houses often missed the mark. Based on this insight, I advised the customer to reach out to Adam Houston, who had recently launched an authentication service. The catalyst for this decision was the significant increase in highly advanced forgeries of J.K. Rowling’s signatures in recent years. Houston, regularly consulted by other collectors, decided to formalize his expertise.

It was the beginning of a weeks-long nightmare, during which my dream of a bookstore serving as a safe haven for collectors of rare Harry Potter books seemed to crumble completely. My literary refuge appeared to have been infiltrated by a lot of Death Eaters, cunningly placed there by a modern-day Voldemort. This elusive master forger primarily concealed himself on eBay, a place where I thought I had scored some nice purchases. Because his identity was carefully hidden, he was referred to as XERO. The corrupt work of this dark wizard had been widely disseminated to hundreds of collectors and even respected booksellers around the world in recent years.

I was utterly bewildered by the can of worms Adam Houston had opened, even considering throwing in the towel. But soon, bewilderment gave way to anger, and I resolved to hunt down this elusive figure. In this process, I encountered several significant challenges: First, I had to gather evidence that Adam’s analysis had been accurate. Most of the books he had rejected would have easily been approved by other authentication companies. Some of these were equipped with a hologram sticker that seemed flawless. If these were indeed forged, XERO had delivered a very impressive piece of work.

In the subsequent months, I joined forces with Adam Houston, and together we managed to gather more evidence. Through microscopic examination, I discovered that the hologram sticker from XERO exhibited a tiny deviation. Additionally, we were able to demonstrate that all the tickets and letters utilized by XERO were forgeries. His identity remained a big mystery. We knew that he used several eBay accounts with fake names and false addresses, but beyond that we hadn’t made much progress.

The breakthrough in our quest came unexpectedly on a sunny day in the summer of 2023. A package containing a forgery purchased by one of Adam’s clients on eBay and returned on his recommendation had gone missing in transit and then been returned to the buyer, labeled by Royal Mail with an unknown name and address. I could link this address to an eBay seller with whom I had directly conducted business, and the name on the package appeared in an article I had read on AllThePrettyBooks, the unsurpassed website of Carly, the American Harry Potter translation collector and co-host of Dialogue Alley, a Harry Potter podcast. The malfunctioning British Postal Service had inadvertently lifted a corner of XERO’s invisibility cloak!

At the address that Royal Mail had provided, a lady resides who offers music lessons for instruments such as piano, keyboard, and violin. Her social media pages showcased a cheerful brunette in her early forties who, judging by a multitude of posts, actively worked to establish her presence in the hopes of acquiring new clients. She also shared delightful snapshots of her cat, flowers, and various other aspects of her private life. Certainly not someone you would associate with a cunning forger. Nevertheless, it seemed like a good idea to subject the photos she had posted to further scrutiny. Not long after, I stared in astonishment at my screen. On Instagram, this lady proudly displayed a new plant, which had found a lovely spot on a red Kashmir rug. On Twitter, I discovered a similar photo in an older post. It was the same rug that an eBay seller had photographed alongside a XERO forgery I purchased in early 2022. More success didn’t take long to follow. Adam and I found more similarities. I even identified a knot in a tabletop that was identical to the one in the background of a forgery. There was no doubt anymore. We had found the crime scene.

In the subsequent weeks, I dropped everything and managed to gradually unveil the invisibility cloak of XERO. A tangled web of eBay accounts with false names and addresses, even officially registered LTD’s came into view. XERO had apparently commenced selling forgeries around mid-2019, and we discovered evidence that both the mentioned music teacher and an unknown partner were involved in photographing these counterfeits. However, this partner remained a significant enigma. His name corresponded to that on the returned package and Carly’s website, yet she meticulously avoided mentioning him on social media. Clearly, considerable effort was invested in keeping him off the radar. Could he be the mastermind behind this extensive forgery operation?

Journalist Kees van der Spek and Jan Maliepaard at Jan's office © RTL.
Journalist Kees van der Spek and Jan Maliepaard at Jan’s office © RTL.

We had gathered sufficient evidence and armed with a hefty report containing solid proof I went to the Dutch police to enlist the assistance of their English counterparts for further investigation. Unfortunately, much like Harry when he tried to announce Voldemort’s return to the Magical world, I encountered a wall of disbelief and incomprehension. This called for extreme measures: It was time to revive The Order of the Phoenix again.

The equivalent of Dumbledore in this Muggle history is the Crime Journalist Kees van der Spek, who is renowned in the Netherlands, as well as beyond its borders, for tracking down and exposing scammers. Back in 2008 his well-known TV program has even earned him an Emmy Award. Van der Spek was immediately very interested in this extraordinary story and decided to make a report about it for Dutch television. In the autumn of 2023, he visited me with a camera crew for an extensive interview, and in early November, I traveled with his team to the United Kingdom. It became an adventure never to be forgotten.

After successfully solving a fraud case in London, which involved a spectacular car hostage situation orchestrated by Van der Spek, we traveled to the south of England and checked into a hotel in the vicinity of the crime scene. The next day, in a car rigged with cameras, we set out to stake out the lion’s den. Ringing the doorbell in these situations is pointless, because if the crook doesn’t answer or slams the door shut, you’re left empty-handed. The plan was to shadow them and confront them in a public location. I soon found out that staking out is quite time-consuming and boring work, completely contradicting my image of the adventurous crime journalist traveling the world to expose wrongdoing.
After several hours of staring at the house through the tinted windows of the car, it was high time for a sanitary stop. We left the crime scene and drove to a field on the edge of the village. There we launched a drone to keep an eye on the house. Barely had the drone arrived when the cameraman noticed that our music teacher emerged from the house and got into the car heading our way. After the drone was back we embarked on the pursuit. The car had passed our public toilet a few minutes earlier and could be anywhere. We hoped she was out for groceries, so we took a chance and drove to the local supermarket. It turned out to be a bullseye. The targeted car was parked near the entrance.

Surprise visits can sometimes bring joy, but this was definitely not one of those times: The woman was taken aback when we confronted her with the fact that all eBay and social media trails led to her house. She vehemently denied being a forger, but upon seeing the evidence, she admitted that she was aware her partner, an artist, was engaged in selling signed books and acknowledged that this wasn’t always ‘done by the book’. When we mentioned his name, she didn’t confirm but danced around it with great caution. It was obvious that we just confronted the partner of ‘he-who-must-not-be-named’.

Bellatrix Lestrange then handed her wand over to the Dark Lord himself, and a very unpleasant phone call ensued, full of threats and denials. You could tell that the crime journalist Kees van der Spek had dealt with this kind of situation many times before because he stoically continued to confront the highly agitated scammer with the irrefutable facts. Later in the hotel, the denial continued via the app, but when the ground became too hot under the feet of the elusive figure, he blocked contact. As a result, there was no other option for us but to return to the house and ring the doorbell. As luck would have it, the woman arrived just in time, and phone contact with her partner was restored. The tone of the forger had shifted from aggressive to panic, and later that same day, we received a surprising proposal for financial compensation for the full amount I had lost dealing with his eBay aliases, which was in fact a confession of his wrongdoing. It should come as no surprise that we celebrated this resounding success that evening in an authentic English pub with a good glass of beer.

If XERO thought this would settle the matter, he had picked the wrong person in Kees van der Spek. The crime journalist insisted that we meet the forger to conclude the case. However, XERO was unwilling to reveal his identity, so we compromised on a telephone interview. It turned out to be a memorable conversation. During this call my stalwart companion in troubled times skillfully elicited a confession. XERO recounted seeing an eBay advertisement for a signed Harry Potter book, clearly a forgery. He was astonished that such an obvious fake, with a signature resembling that of a three-year-old, was being sold for £200. He claimed that as a joke, he had listed a forgery on eBay himself, which had started the whole scheme rolling. He admitted to being successful in this endeavor, with money being his primary motivation. Naturally, he downplayed our evidence of over a thousand sales of forgeries on eBay, including signatures of numerous other writers and artists. Sharp-witted Kees complimented him on the quality of his forgeries, to which he responded by claiming to be a skilled visual artist. He pledged to mend his ways and dispose of his remaining stock in the trash.

Our quest had proven to be a great success. Not only had I recovered my money, but we had also managed to secure a nearly complete confession from XERO. We thought that from that moment on, both we and the Harry Potter fans could sleep more peacefully. This turned out to be quite a misconception.

For months, my daily routine had started with a cup of coffee and checking XERO’s known eBay accounts for new forgeries. The morning after XERO’s confession was no exception. Initially, nothing caught my attention, and I casually browsed eBay for interesting offers and found for a very competitive price a signed copy of The Running Grave, the latest installment in the detective series written by Rowling under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

The name of the seller was unknown, but the background of the photographed book seemed very familiar. I discovered that XERO had once again posted a forgery on eBay that night. For this purpose, he had changed the name of one of his accounts and had been clever enough to photograph the book in such a way that it wasn’t immediately obvious it was a forgery. Nevertheless, I was able to unequivocally prove that it was. During breakfast, we decided that we would pay XERO another visit at his home. Our patience had run out, so this time there would be some harsh words exchanged. Of course, there was no answer when we arrived, but through the closed front door we gave the incorrigible forger the choice to either show up within ten minutes or face the English media later in the day. We had just left for our base when XERO began to text us, agreeing to a meeting. We shared our location, and shortly afterward, we saw the familiar car of the pair pull up. Finally, I would come face to face with the master forger who had been operating from the shadows for so long, becoming a true nuisance for collectors and Harry Potter enthusiasts around the world.

Kees and Jan facing the counterfeiter © RTL.
Kees and Jan facing the counterfeiter © RTL.

A brown-haired man in his mid-forties, wearing a hastily thrown-on shirt over jogging pants, approached, his face hidden behind a COVID mask. He explained his inexplicable actions by claiming he had been drunk and had been planning to list this counterfeit for weeks. I told him that I monitor his eBay accounts daily and that I see any new activity within a split second. He promised to never do it again, on which we shook hands and then he attempted to hug me. I recoiled and told him I would much prefer it if he took two steps back and, if he had any courage, showed us his face. And so he did.

The world’s foremost counterfeiter of signed J.K. Rowling’s books has finally been unmasked.

The video documentation of this report can be viewed on the Dutch online platform Videoland, specifically in episode 1 of season 10 of “Kees van der Spek: Oplichters Aangepakt.”

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